Whether asked aloud or not, all too often the opinions of others are an important consideration when thinking about and executing change. As we have discussed in earlier blogs, it is important to get input from a range of people who will be affected by the change. It can inform decisions about what to change, when to change, and how to execute the change. So, asking, What does Mary think? makes sense when done at the right time, and in the right way. But, all too often, how we respond to the answer does not.
I had just begun grad school in September 1971 when I received my draft notice. In order to complete the semester, I enrolled “delayed enlistment” in the US Air Force; I began basic training in early 1972. Among the 48 men in our training group was “Airman Jones.” Airman Jones was from a rural part of the country, not highly educated, and not very coordinated. At the same time, he was good humored, and was one of the most hard-working people I have ever known. Everyone was willing to put in an extra effort to make sure that he was able to keep up with the rest of us in meeting our academic and physical requirements. What we never were able to do, however, was to train him to stay in step when marching. Sometimes he would step off with the wrong foot, sometimes not. It really didn’t matter; either way, he would regularly drift in and out of step with the other 47 of us.
There is a marching command, “Change Step, March.” On the word “March,” everyone does a quick “step-step” within a single beat of the cadence. The result is that you essentially are marching “Left. Right. Left. Right-Right. Left. Right.” We became very skilled at executing this command, which was given with one slight modification… “With the exception of Airman Jones, Change Step, March.” The result, 47 of us were regularly adjusting our pace to be in step with the one person who could not stay in step with us.
I tell this story because it is much like asking, “What does Mary think?” and then adjusting to align with the answer, regardless of what it is. And, when it comes to change, in one way or another this happens all too often. The top salesperson is allowed to maintain an administrative assistant and call his orders in rather than moving to filing them digitally on a tablet because “Tom isn’t technically savvy and he is too important to lose.” The CIO agrees to keep shadow systems running for the CFO because she doesn’t like “making all that information so readily available to others.” Joe’s newspaper continues to get delivered to the apartment door even though he has long-since moved out because “What would the neighbors think if they find out we are getting a divorce?” If Tom doesn’t need to become digitally savvy, the word soon spreads that you are not really serious about the change. If the CFO can run shadow systems to continue to maintain control over information, the purchasing department in Des Moines will be doing the same thing soon enough. And, sooner or later, the neighbor will know Joe is no longer living there, and why…and will most likely just shrug and go about her own business.
If the change is big, it’s tough. And when you are executing tough change, people are not going to be happy. If it is really okay to adapt the change when it makes Mary, or Tom, or you uncomfortable, then how important is it?
If it’s that big and that unimportant, why are you doing it? If it’s that big and that important, then be respectful of the discomfort it is causing. And continue to move forward.
What do you think? Comments and your own related stories are welcomed below.